Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.29: Candra Gill

Books, Movies, Music, and Technology in 2012
by Candra Gill

Books

I read fewer books than is usual for me this year. I blame finishing grad school. Of the books that I did have time to read, Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo [http://smallbeerpress.com/books/2010/07/06/redemption-in-indigo-2/] was my favorite. It’s the story of Paama, who, soon after leaving an unhappy marriage, finds herself the keeper of a powerful magical object that lets her change the world around her. The word I keep using when I tell people about this novel is “delightful.” It’s beautifully written, with fun metatextual asides by the narrator, talking spiders, and chaos theory.

Disclosure note: I am on the steering committee of the Carl Brandon Society and am responsible for administering the Carl Brandon Awards. It was in this capacity that I encountered Redemption in Indigo. I read it after it won The Carl Brandon Parallax Award.

I also enjoyed reading Cory Doctorow’s For the Win [http://craphound.com/ftw/]. It’s the story of teens around the world who play videogames professionally. These are not single gamers; rather, they work in groups as game miners, grinding for game money and big ticket items to sell. For the Win tells the story of these young people asserting their rights and identities as workers. They form unions, face potentially lethal real world obstacles, and manipulate economies (both inside and outside of their games).

Movies

One of my favorite movies this year was Brave [http://disney.go.com/brave/index.html], Pixar’s first film with a female lead character. I loved Merida and I really enjoyed the focus on personal relationships. Yes, it would have been nice to have a female protagonist who wasn’t a princess and a story that wasn’t about whether or not said princess would marry. But I enjoyed it. There are worse stories to tell than that of a mother and daughter learning to truly communicate with each other, especially when such stories come with beautifully animated high adventure. Brave netted some great conversations for me this year. I recently watched it again, and it definitely stands up to multiple viewings.

Chronicle [https://www.facebook.com/Chronicle] is the story of three teenaged boys who encounter a mysterious object and find themselves developing superpowers as a result. It’s told in a found footage style, as Andrew, one of the three, constantly records his life with a handheld camera. Chronicle is best when the guys are discovering their powers and when the found footage reveals the often harrowing details of Andrew’s abusive home life. I didn’t love the third act, but so what? It’s still worth watching, and it shows that you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make a science fiction film with strong special effects.

It’s been months since I saw it, and I’m still not sure if I liked Beasts of the Southern Wild [http://www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com/] or not. I can, however, say without hesitation that Quvenzhan√© Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy was outstanding. When you hear this child say in the film that people will read about her in history books one day, you absolutely believe her.

My favorite movie this year was Looper [http://www.loopermovie.com]. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a titular Looper—a hitman who kills people sent back in time by the mob of thirty years in the future. People who agree to be Loopers do so with the understanding that the last person they’ll kill in the job is their own future self. Things go wrong for Joe when his future self doesn’t exactly cooperate. Looper was clever, held up to multiple viewings, and has another outstanding performance by a child actor that I can’t say much about without giving too much away.

I also enjoyed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry [http://aiweiweineversorry.com/], which is a documentary about the life of the Chinese dissident artist named in the title. The film’s overview of Ai’s life as an artist is compelling, but the film is most powerful when it focuses on his work surrounding the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. After government officials refused to disclose how many children died in poorly constructed schools during the earthquake, Ai worked with a group of people to find out the names and birthdays of each of the children who had died in school. The final list is over 5,000 names long.

Music

Natasha Khan, who performs music under the name Bat for Lashes [http://www.batforlashes.com/], is one of my favorite recording artists. Her first two albums were full of songs that told strange stories of wizards and evil doppelgangers (fun, right?) set to catchy, often ethereal music. Her new album, The Haunted Man, comes across as much more personal. There’s less whimsy than in her previous work, but the tradeoff is a stunning album by an artist who’s obviously pushing herself to grow.

Santigold [http://www.santigold.com/] is another artist who continues to grow. Her Master of My Make-Believe is full of catchy, genre-defying tunes that hold up very well live. I go to a lot of concerts, and her show was one of the best I saw this year.

Technology

As someone who plays guitar and who loves rhythm videogames like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, Rocksmith [http://rocksmith.ubi.com/rocksmith/en-us/home/index.aspx] is amazing. It takes the rhythm game format and concept and maps it onto guitar tablatures. You play by plugging in an actual electric guitar into the game console. You can learn popular songs, unlock guitar and amp simulators, and do practice drills to improve your playing away from the game. Rocksmith does all of this while maintaining all of the fun of rhythm games.

I’m kind of late to the party with Evernote [https://evernote.com/], which has been around for a while. I’ve only been using it for a few months, but it has become indispensible. Evernote is cloud-based note-taking software that works across various devices and operating systems. It’s available in a free version and a paid version. Start a note on your mobile device, and finish it on your desktop, completely seamlessly.

The Raspberry Pi [http://www.raspberrypi.org/] is a barebones computer that retails for $35. It can use a standard USB mouse and keyboard and can use most TVs as a monitor. It was designed to be an affordable way for children to learn about computer programming, but people of all ages have taken to it. There’s a thriving online community that shares project ideas and tutorials.

Zombies, Run! [https://www.zombiesrungame.com/] is a post-apocalypse-themed mobile videogame that you experience while running or walking. You follow the story on your mobile device as you exercise. The story unfolds as audio, with a single episode per workout. It gives you incentive to exercise in order to find out what happens next in the story. And the thing is, you’ll want to know what happens next. Turns out that clever format notwithstanding, Zombies, Run! is a good zombie story.

Candra K. Gill is a user experience designer. She’s on Twitter using the handle @ckgill.

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